Susan Butt’s theories are gold to Cuba’s athletesby Gavin Wilson Staff writer
Drug use, temper tantrums, trash-talking multimillionaires, pre- pubescent girls
chewed up and spit out by an uncaring system.
Welcome to the dysfunctional world of sports.
For 30 years Susan Butt, an associate professor in the Psychology Dept., has
advocated a better way to train and motivate elite athletes–a more
constructive model that could reduce some of the Olympian excesses that plague
professional and high-level amateur sport.
In her seminal book, Psychology of Sport: the Behaviour, Motivation,
Personality and Performance of Athletes, she argued that reinforcing
feelings of competence and co-operation in athletes is a better motivator than
promoting aggression and competition. This would not only improve the
psychological well-being of athletes, but enhance their performance as well.
Although the book has been in print for 20 years and gone through several
editions and translations, she has often felt like a voice crying in the
But when she was invited to give a keynote address at the 30th annual Sports
Medicine Congress last month in Havana, she discovered someone had been
listening after all.
Her work is an integral part of training in what is arguably the world’s most
successful Olympic program–Cuba’s.
A relatively small and impoverished island nation (that does have, however, a
98 per cent literacy rate), Cuba won 25 medals, nine of them gold, at the
summer Olympics in Atlanta. That put them ninth overall in the medals
standings, ahead of larger and richer countries like Britain, Spain, Japan and
Canada. And on a per capita basis, it gave them more medals than anyone else in
During her visit, Butt was treated royally by the head of Cuba’s sports
psychology department, who pulled from his shelves most of her articles, even
those from obscure journals. At meetings he pointed out his former students,
who now work all over Latin America, and told her they all use her theories.
“I’m not vain enough to think that their success is all due to the application
of my theories,” Butt said, “but they’re doing everything right for these
athletes, so it’s no surprise to me that they’ve done so well.”
Butt’s theories had their genesis on the clay and grass courts of the world’s
premier tennis tournaments. In her late teens and early 20s, she was on the
professional tennis circuit.
As Canada’s number one ranked women’s player, she competed all over the
world–Europe, Australia, South America, the U.S. Nationals and centre court at
Wimbledon. She was captain of Canada’s team in the Federation Cup, the top
international tennis tournament for women.
What she saw there convinced her there were serious problems in
competitive sport. And although she did not at first plan to specialize in
sports psychology, after completing her PhD in psychology at the University of
Chicago, she found herself inevitably drawn in that direction as one of her
Her major contribution to the field is a set of measurement scales that gauge
how athletes feel about their performance. It is based on five motivations:
aggression, conflict (a state which can lead to feelings of guilt,
listlessness, confusion and nervousness), competence, competition and
While some degree of aggression and competition is highly desirable in an
athlete, Butt feels they receive far too much emphasis.
“If an athlete is to have the greatest chance of fulfilling their potential,
they are best served by higher scores on co-operation and competence. In North
America, many coaches would like to see their athletes score higher on the
aggressive and competitive ends of the scale, and I’ve long argued against
that,” she said.
Athletes will perform better and have longer, happier and healthier
careers if they display such co-operative traits as helping others improve
their game and sharing responsibility for team failure. Also important is the
motivation of competence, in which athletes report they feel confident and
pleased with their abilities and accomplishments.
Athletes with this outlook are more likely to value the internal rewards of
sports, such as self-esteem and a sense of identity, rather than the external
awards of money, status and attention-seeking.
Butt said her theories are often misunderstood.
“I’m not against having a contest, but there are better ways of approaching
competition. I recently saw (tennis stars) Boris Becker and Pete Sampras throw
their arms around each other at the end of a match. They’re extremely
competitive, but they like each other and realize that without excellence to
compete against, they can’t show their own excellence.”
In her clinical practice, Butt has seen elite athletes and performers who are
stressed out and have neurotic styles. They may be aggressive and angry with
officials, opponents and even their team-mates.
Neither do these athletes trust their coaches, who they often feel are using
them to satisfy their own vanity instead of developing their athlete’s
“We often waste our elite athletes,” Butt said. “We throw them into the dust
bin when their careers are over.”
The Cubans, in contrast, build a family-style atmosphere within their sports
programs. Loyalty and trust are emphasized and athletes maintain good relations
with the team years after they have finished their careers.
All the more remarkable in a program that downplays aggression and
competitiveness, the Cubans’ best results are in sports that pit athletes
one-on-one in ritualized battle: boxing, wrestling, fencing and judo.
In boxing, especially, the Cubans are a world power, winning seven medals, four
of them gold, in Atlanta.
“Look at this,” Butt said, holding up the profile of the Cuban Olympic boxing
team. “Conflict, 2.1 (out of 10); aggression, 3.5; competition, 4.8;
co-operation, 7.8; competence, 7.9. If you showed many Canadian coaches these
scores, they wouldn’t believe them.
“But a boxer can’t go into the ring and just be aggressive. He can’t flail
around. He has to use his skill in the sport and be fully in control to do
Butt quotes from the autobiography of Emmitt Smith, the Dallas Cowboys’ star
running back: “`Every so often, if an athlete is lucky, he meets an older man
who makes him a better man.'”
“Note what he is saying: If a man is lucky, once in his lifetime
he may meet an older man whom he can trust and will understand him.”
“He was talking about one coach he had in high school,” Butt said,
holding up a finger for emphasis. “The Cubans have all kinds of people like
Perhaps one day the North American sports establishment will get the message.
For now, however, Butt is pleased that at least one corner of the world is